There are a lot of new and exciting things coming to Disney World in 2022!
Between a brand new roller coaster, Star Wars hotel, MagicBand+, and more, there’s a lot to look forward to. And, there’s even something new coming to Disney World hotels too — Amazon Alexa! So, soon you’ll have your own personal in-room assistant who can help you with a variety of requests (and even play games). But, not everyone is ready to embrace our Alexa overlords. Should you be concerned about this new service?
What Is “Hey Disney”
Earlier this year, Disney announced that a new service called “Hey Disney!” would be coming to Disney World Resort hotels in 2022. This optional and complimentary service is described by Disney as a “custom voice assistant” that uses “Alexa technology for supported Amazon Echo devices.” So, you can think about it as being the Disney equivalent of the Alexa that you might have at home.
Essentially, “Hey Disney!” will respond to voice commands and will enable guests to interact with Disney characters, set alarms, answer questions, and even guide guests to surprises. For example, you’ll be able to ask “Hey Disney!” for things like when the next bus to a certain park is scheduled to arrive at your hotel by saying “Hey Disney! When does the next bus to EPCOT depart?” Plus, you can even ask it when the parks will open so you don’t have to constantly be pulling up your My Disney Experience app to check.
And, it will even make requesting towels or an extra blanket easier! You’ll be able tell “Hey Disney!” what you need and a Cast Member will then bring that up to your room shortly after.
Once these new Amazon Echo devices are installed in the hotels (which they’ll be coming to every single Disney resort hotel room, according to Disney), guests will have their very own personalized assistant. But, let’s cover how exactly “Hey Disney!” will be able to do it all using Alexa technology.
How Amazon Devices Work
Amazon Alexa has been around since 2013 and has become a household name over the past 8 years. But, you might be wondering, “is the device always listening to me?” The technical answer is yes, but it is specifically listening for the “wake word” (“Hey Disney” in this case). So, as the device picks up a conversation, it runs “keyword spotting” and if it doesn’t detect the wake word then it stops listening. If it does detect the wake word, then a blue light indicator comes on to alert you to the fact that it is listening and processing your request.
Once it hears the “wake word” and begins recording (as indicated by the blue light), the voice request is then sent to Amazon’s secure cloud where automatic speech recognition is used to translate what you said into text to be searched. It’s not necessarily processing your entire sentence though. Instead, it picks up specific keywords like “weather” and “Orlando” to help it route to the correct data source to gather information. The voice recording and transcript is then saved and stored in the Amazon cloud at the same time the device uses text to speech to respond to your request.
So, while the Amazon Alexa is technically always listening, only a select number of things get recorded and stored in Amazon’s secure cloud. At least that’s the spiel from Amazon. Over the years, Amazon and its Echo devices have been in the headlines a number of times for privacy-related reasons. Notably, the service has been called to share data in a number of trials for serious crimes, with prosecutors convinced the devices were secretly listening in and potentially overhearing a crime in progress. Amazon is not quick to show its cards of what all data it actually has, citing First Amendment rights of customers. In a few court cases, they have cooperated, though the extent of data shared is private to the cases.
According to USA Today, the Wiretap Act in place was initially designed to allow telephone companies the right to listen in periodically on some customers’ calls with the goal of improving their offered services. That’s what Amazon admits they’re doing. But, with commercial companies like Amazon, this could be seen as a loophole in that act allowing them to listen in for their own gains — they have a vested financial interest in gaining your information under the potential guise of improving their services. This is where much of the fear behind these products come from. Many people are convinced the devices are always listening and using the info people speak near them. Amazon has been fighting since these devices were released to promise the public that their privacy is safe.
Amazon has a whole page devoted to assuring you they’re not listening in on you all the time, yet you’ll find countless anecdotal stories online claiming otherwise. Officially, though, Amazon stands firm that your conversations are private until you wake up the device, and, even then, they’re not using that information or even tying it to you personally.
Should You Really Have Privacy Concerns?
While Disney hasn’t announced many more details about these new “Hey Disney!” devices just yet, many guests who are planning a 2022 Disney World trip are finding themselves wondering if they should be concerned about their privacy once they are installed in the rooms. And, luckily, Amazon Alexa has been around for nearly a decade, giving us some historical data to work with here.
The main thing to know about the Echo devices is that they are listening specifically for a “wake word.” So, while it is technically always listening to you (much like Siri is on your phone or laptop), nothing will be recorded and stored until the wake word is said. The NY Times explains it like this — “Think of Echo like a dog: It’s always listening, but it understands only “cookie,” “walk,” or “Buddy.” Everything else goes right over its head.”
So, many of the cases in the past where Alexa “went rogue” were actually triggered by that wake word, or what it THINKS is the wake word. For example, according to NPR, an Amazon Echo device recorded a conversation between a couple talking about their hardwood floors and sent the recording to one of the husband’s employees without their knowledge back in 2018. Amazon released a statement about this incident explaining that the device “woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa.’ Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request. At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right’.”
One study done at Northeastern University found that smart speakers, in general, were accidentally activated (by detecting a word it thought was its wake word) as much as 19 times per day and could record anywhere up to close to a minute of data each time. So Amazon might not always be recording you — but YOU could inadvertently be giving her more info than you think. That said, Amazon continues to refine its services to be smarter as technology advances.
Of course, after hearing stories like this, it can be easy to think that these Amazon devices are spying on you and always listening, but that’s not necessarily the case according to Insider. While recordings from the devices are eventually used and transcribed by Amazon employees to help in making Alexa even more intuitive and helpful, it’s important to note that “Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow.”
All of the information is treated as confidential and Amazon uses “multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.” So, even if it did hear something that you didn’t want it to hear, your information isn’t being shared with the masses. These same concerns are present with other similar devices including Siri on Apple products and more, so keep in mind you might already be using products with the risk of “listening in” and not be super cognizant of it.
And, if you change your privacy settings (which we will detail below), then no one will even have access to those recordings.
So, the biggest thing to takeaway is that yes, there have been some instances where privacy was a concern, but these are not necessarily common and, unless you say the wake word, you’re likely not being recorded. With the wake word being “Hey Disney,” there is certainly a chance that the device is going to be listening when you don’t intend it to be but the device will light up blue to indicate that it is listening and it will likely start talking back to you. (After all, there’s a good chance you’ll accidentally say “hey Disney” or something that sounds like it at some point in your room over the course of a trip to Disney World!) Plus, if you’re very concerned, privacy settings have significantly improved and can be altered. But basically, you shouldn’t fear that a midnight convo in bed about how much you want a milkshake will result in you waking up to My Disney Experience flooding you with every milkshake location in Disney World!
What Can You Do?
If you’re still concerned about your privacy, there are a few additional ways to secure the devices.
According to Amazon, all devices feature Microphone off buttons, camera shutters, and light indicators so that you know whether it is listening to you or not. And, you can ask the device to delete voice recordings, adjust settings, or explain what was heard if you think that it recorded something that you didn’t want it to hear (this was introduced in 2019). Amazon also notes again that you must say the “wake word” for the device to begin listening (in this case the phrase will be “Hey Disney”).
Plus, according to Forbes, Amazon also introduced another new privacy setting in 2020 that enables people to alter the settings so that none of the voice recordings are saved (previously auto-deletion could only be set to every 3 to 18 months). This is done through the Alexa app by going to More>Settings>Alexa Privacy>Manage Your Alexa Data>Automatically delete recordings. If you want to get slightly creeped out, in the Alexa app you can also go to Settings>Alexa Privacy>Review Voice History and hear what your own devices picked up both intentionally and on accident.
Just keep in mind that it’s still unclear whether guests will be able to access these new “Hey Disney!” devices through an app to alter the settings. It’s not your standard out-of-the-box Echo device, it’s a Disneyfied version with its own set of rules.
And, more improvements are coming to Amazon Echo devices. In September 2021, Amazon announced that all new Amazon Echo devices (starting at the Echo 10) will be able to process voice commands locally rather than through a wi-fi network. But, again, it’s unclear whether Disney will be using this extra privacy setting for the devices that they install in guest rooms.
So far, Disney has not released details about what the privacy settings will be on the devices, so it’s unclear whether guests will be able to change any of the settings while they’re in their room or if they’ll already be installed. We’ll be keeping an eye out for more information and will be sure to bring you the latest tips on how to secure your privacy. But, if you’d prefer not to use the device at all, you will likely be able to unplug it and deactivate its features so that there will not be a concern of whether it is listening or not (we’ll keep ya updated!).
Don’t forget, these devices are expected to roll out sometime in 2022 among all the other exciting new things coming to the parks, so be sure to stay tuned to DFB for the latest!
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What upcoming Disney World change are you looking forward to in 2022? Let us know in the comments!